Alcohol use on the rise in parts of Asia

Study shows economic success spurs growing culture of imbibing except in nations where religion serves as effective antidote
Alcohol use on the rise in parts of Asia

Indonesian workers place bottles of bootleg alcohol to be destroyed after a raid in Surabaya on April 25, 2018. Around 100 Indonesians died due to tainted alcohol from March to early May last year. Nonetheless, the country has bucked the trend in Asia by seeing little growth in alcohol consumption over the past 20 years, according to research published in The Lancet medical journal. (Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP) 

As alcohol consumption rises across Asia, Indonesians, including local Catholics, appear to be oblivious to the region's growing taste for a tipple, but Catholics elsewhere in Asia appear to be drinking more as incomes rise.

New research published by The Lancet medical journal suggests Asia is the world's booze growth market, as consumption is either leveling off or dropping in most other places.

The report found that from 1990-2017, consumption increased by 104 percent across Southeast Asia and 54 percent in Western Pacific, according to geographical regions designated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some 79 percent of Indonesians are teetotalers, down from 84 percent in 1990, the data showed. This compares to over 90 percent of people who abstain from drinking for life in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where Catholic charity Caritas has been working to help those young people who do fall prey to drug and alcohol addiction.

"Muslim countries consume way less alcohol (than non-Muslim nations), and consequently (they have) substantially less of a problem drinking," said Dr Jürgen Rehm from the University of Toronto, one of the authors of the report.

About 16 percent of Indonesians are designated as "current drinkers" — up five percentage points from 1990, but still low compared to other Southeast Asian countries. 

Father Andang Binawan, a Jakarta priest, said there has not been any noticeable increase in alcohol consumption, or any reported cases of heavy drinking and related issues such as debt, marital breakdowns or loss of jobs among Catholics in Indonesia in recent years.

"Culturally, Javanese are not drinking people," he said, referring to the country's biggest ethnic group.

Despite the lack of widespread interest in the country, Papua authorities came under fire in 2016 for not properly enforcing a liquor ban, which was partially blamed for a spate of deaths linked to the consumption of bootleg liquor.

The number of "current drinkers" in the Philippines climbed from 44 percent to 48 percent over the 1990-2017 period, while "heavy episodic drinkers" in Timor-Leste jumped from 12 percent to 20 percent, The Lancet reported.

These are the only Catholic-majority countries in Asia, it said.

Rehm said alcohol's growing popularity in Asia could be explained by strong economic growth and income rises over the last 20 years, except in countries where this was overridden by cultural or religious factors.

"The association between economic wealth and alcohol per capita consumption among low- and lower-middle income countries is very strong," he said.

The Lancet's research mentions India, Myanmar and Vietnam — all of which have seen substantial growth over the past decade — as seeing the most notable increases in recent years.

Alcohol abuse has reportedly become a growing challenge for Catholics in Vietnam, with excessive drinking leading to family problems, accidents and premature deaths.

The study tallies with research published last year by the WHO, which estimated that from 2002 to 2018, Vietnam saw the proportion of adults who drink rising from 46 percent to 77 percent among men, and 2 percent to 11 percent among women.

Meanwhile, consumption in China jumped from 4.1 liters of pure alcohol per person each year to 7.2 liters, measured over the 2005 to 2016 period.

Corresponding growth in India more than doubled from 2.4 liters to 5.7 liters, the report showed.

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